Italy in Books - Naples '44 by Norman Lewis

Naples '44 is an autobiographical account of a British army intelligence officers experience in Naples in 1944. It's a beautifully written even-handed portrayal of the craziness of war, told with affection and intelligence.

The book is based on Norman Lewis' diary entries, during the time when he was an intelligence officer in Italy, attached to the Allied forces. It flows nicely as he details life in Naples, from the locals and their superstitions and circuitous way of speaking to the disorder and frank ineptitude of certain members of the Allied forces. He's able to move around Naples and the local area with relative impunity due to his intelligence officer status and incredibly useful Italian language skills.  This allows him to explore the local culture, generating contacts and delving deep into local life, even to an extent where he wonders if his superiors feel his sympathetic understanding of the locals may compromise his judgement. 

Norman Lewis writes in a lively and compassionate fashion, often not only describing an incident but also its emotional impact as his experiences in Italy change him. Here's a typical example:
'Only at this point did I realise the tragic significance of the request, and that this skinny, undeveloped little girl was a child prostitute. The scugnizzi of Naples and Benevento are intelligent, charming and above all philosophical... and this female version of the breed was in no way different from her male counterparts. Much as she may have been disappointed by my rejection of her services, nothing but good humour showed in her face. She bobbed something like a curtsy. 'Perhaps I'll take the biscuits after all,' she said. Then, with a wave, she was off.'

The combination of social comment, war reporting and insights into the local culture made it really hard for me to put this book down. I'm not usually that interested in war books, but with the balanced views of the author being the conduit between the Allies in Italy and the Italians, it makes for fascinating reading, and I can heartily recommend it.

This book review is my March entry for the Italy in Books reading Challenge. If you fancy reading it yourself (and live in the US or can deal with the shipping), you can buy it from the Lazioexplorer Amazon store here.

With offers this good, who cares where you go?

This is just a quick post to let people know how easy it is to book tickets with trenitalia and how cheap it currently is to travel by train in Italy (wonderfully cheap compared to  the painfully expensive UK ticket prices I normally deal with).

Link to Trenitalia offera mini
Traveling by train is a great way to see Italy. It's quick, takes you from city center to city center, and gives you a constantly changing smorgasbord of beautiful scenery. We've recently braved the trenitalia website (which, while a bit slow, isn't too bad actually) and have saved a small fortune with the current Offerta mini special offer, and if you plan to travel anywhere in Italy in the next month or so, I urge you to give it a go, rather than using a foreign agency, through which you can't normally access the special offers as you can if you use the trenitalia site directly.

The Italian Frecciarossa train or 'Red Arrow' from

Trenitalia's top-of-the-range trains are the Eurostar Italia 'Frecciarossa' (red arrow) high speed trains, which travel at 175mph and the Eurostar Italia 'Frecciargento' (silver arrow) 125mph tilting trains. These are the most expensive but can give you journey times such as Rome-Naples in 1 hour 10 minutes or Rome-Venice in 3 hours 45 minutes. The next level of train is the 'Eurostar City' (EC) which are still pretty good and are still air-conditioned and comfortable. One step below the EC is the IC, or intercity train. These are cheap but still of a good standard and are pretty quick, going 100-125mph. Below these are the Espresso and Regionale trains, which can be a bit more variable. They are very cheap for the distances involved but can sometimes be in a bit of a state, so I'd avoid these if you can (unless you're really on a budget).

Using the trenitalia website, you pick the trains you want to take and only after this do you get to choose the cheaper offerta tickets (this is what other travel agents can't get to). These tickets can be amazing. For example, I've got a return from Rome to Naples for 32 Euros, taking Eurostar City trains both ways. Quick, convenient, and cheap. Once you've chosen your tickets, you can register (to get sent e-tickets to your e-mail account) and pay. At this point, you may struggle. For whatever reason, the trenitalia website experiences some problems with some non-Italian card circuits, such as Visa credit cards (but not Visa debit cards) or American Express. Sometimes this is because your bank thinks the transaction is dodgy, since, as it's on the trenitalia site, it appears as if suddenly you're spending money in Italy, so it's a good idea to check with your bank and let them know you plan to use the site before giving up. Other than that,  and only if you're in the US, you can use this excellent new portal to the trenitalia site from Why Go Italy, which does have access to the promotional offers.

Remember, all Regionale and local train tickets must be validated immediately before boarding using one of the small yellow machines at the entrance to every platform. You do not need to validate Eurostar Italia, EC or IC tickets as these include specific train reservations (which means that not only are you guaranteed a seat but you have to religiously stick to taking the train at the time you booked, unless you want to face a hefty fine).

If you want more comprehensive information on train travel in Italy then I suggest you take a look at the magnificent seat61 website, which has everything you need to know about train travel, tickets, left luggage, train stations etc., around the world.

So, if you're in Italy in the next couple of months and have a few days, do it! Take advantage of the excellent offers on the trenitalia website and see as much of Italy as you can! 
Buon viaggio!!

Update - the latest special offer (Promo Autunno) where one can travel anywhere in Italy on the Frecciarossa from only €19 has been extended until the 23rd January 2012 !

Click to go through to Trenitalia for the latest offer.

Italy Unification Day - 150 years young on Thursday!

Apparently there's a celebration this week. Same day as St. Patrick's day. A major European country turns 150. Pretty young for a country wouldn't you say, Europeanly speaking? Well, Italy as a concept and as a country is pretty young. This Thursday, it's time to celebrate the founding of Italy 150 years ago as geographically, if not necessarily culturally, one country.

Vittorio Emanuele II (from Wikipedia)

Italy was only united as a single political entity in 1861 after the overthrow of the Kingdom of Naples by a nationalist movement led by the revolutionary Giuseppe Garibaldi and backed by the rival Kingdom of Piedmont. In 1861 the king of Piedmont, Vittorio Emanuele II was made the king of Italy and the Kingdom of Italy was born.  One of the main men behind the unification, or Il Risorgimento as it is known (literally 'the resurrection'), was Count Camillo di Cavour, who just happened to come from Turin, the country's first capital. You may have noticed how pretty much every Italian town has a via cavour or a Victor Emmanuel II piazza, this is why. If you want to learn more about the history of the unification of Italy, then check out this Wikipedia entry.

"We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians

                                                         - Massimo d'Azeglio

The 150 anniversary comes at an interesting time for Italy. It's not for me to comment on whether Italy is a divided country or not, as I simply don't know enough about the different regions and ins and outs of Italian politics (frankly, who does?), but there are plenty of articles in the English-speaking press about this, such as in Reuters and The Telegraph (UK), if you want to make up your own mind.

Even if 2011 is not the city of Rome’s 150th unification anniversary (it will be in 2020) many of the activites to honour the memory of Italy’s unification will take place in the country’s current capital. A full list can be found here (in Italian).

Finally, despite the best efforts of the Northern League, certain MPs (mainly from the north again) and the Education Minister, Mariastella Gelmini, March 17th will be a national holiday, so expect public transport to be running a Sunday service. A number of museums related to il Risorgimento will be free on Thursday as well, but instead of repeating the list here, I'll just add a link to Revealed Rome's post, which covers the museums and the main events in Rome. 

The quote above from the 19th Century MP Massimo d'Azeglio stills holds some truth today. Many Italians feel closer to their campanile than to their country. Maybe Italy does need a day to celebrate the whole, rather than the sum of it's parts.

So, if you're in Italy, get out there and join the celebrations!

Italy in Books - The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

This was going to be my February entry in the Italy in Books reading challenge, but life had it's wicked way with me and I finished the book 30 minutes too late (i.e. into March) and hence, I missed the deadline. However, I've started so I'll finish. Here's my review of 'The Solitude of Prime Numbers' by Paolo Giordano. It's a corker, I didn't want you to miss out ;-)

This book was recommended to me by a friend and has intrigued me for a while so I've kind of shoe-horned it into the challenge. It's loosely set in Italy and some foreign (undisclosed as far as I could tell) northern European country. It's not one of those hey look how sweet my life is in italy books. If anything, it's set partially in Italy purely because the author is Italian. This book is about relationships and choices, how you can feel alone while being in a room full of people, and how sometimes things don't work out as in the movies.

The Solitude of Prime Numbers follows the lives of two people, Mattia and Alice, recounting character-building (and destroying) episodes during their formative years, and their subsequent search for that missing something as they get older. They are both troubled, but in different ways. Mattia, a precocious mathematical genius, finds solace in numbers, calculating formula and equations rather than chitchat and is often simply rude in order to achieve the least social interaction. He appears to be a difficult person to have a friend and he seems borderline autistic (although there's nothing wrong with that). He is troubled by a lost twin sister, who, while being a twin, was troubled herself, struggling to adapt to life due to her mental retardation. In a heart-wrenching few pages, a young Mattia decides to leave his sister in a park rather than face the embarrassment of going to a school friends party with her. He never sees her again. This only adds to his disenfranchisement with society. Alice, on the other hand, has suffered from an over-bearing father, who has pushed her to achieve, taking the fun out of life. She suffers a broken leg in a skiing accident that leaves her with a severe limp and a sour outlook. This alienates her further from her peers, leaving her, like Mattia, on the outside, not even caring to look in. Yet, despite their indifference, they somehow get through life with well-meaning friends and lovers, while missing something, some connection that would complete their lives The romantics among you may spot what they could be missing, the book even gives us tantalizingly romantic phrases such as “Between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching” (bet you haven't tried that one on a Saturday night), and yet at the same time, they are such loners you simply can't imagine them realizing a good thing when they see it. You almost want to shake them and tell them to sort themselves out.

It's a strange book in some ways, almost mathematical in its style. It's cold, insensitive and objective in it's portrayal of the characters and their situations. I found myself not caring for them and yet at the same moment I was getting frustrated with them for their lack of emotional intelligence or response to a missed opportunity. At the end of the book however, I found myself warmed to and by the story, as if finally I had connected with the characters and understood their lives from their perspective. It's well written, generating a mood and ambiance for the story more through what isn't written (or what is simply coldly noted) rather than through long descriptive passages. It's a good book, that challenged me and made me think. If you fancy reading something that isn't formulaic and that does make you think of the randomness of life, then you can do far worse than The Solitude of Prime Numbers (this is a link to the Lazio Explorer Amazon store where you can find more reviews).

As mentioned above, this was for the Italy in Books reading challenge. The other February book reviews can be found here. Right, let's see if I can read something Italy-related before the end of March!